Mickey Spillane’s hard-boiled private “detective” Mike Hammer first appeared in the writer’s debut novel I, The Jury in 1947. Spillane filled the Hammer stories with scandalous – for the time period – violence and sex. Critics frowned on the hundreds of millions in book sales that followed but readers continue to make the many Mike Hammer novels a success to this very day.
The Mike Hammer movies, on the other hand, have always been a very mixed bunch of projects. The expression “from the ridiculous to the sublime” has never been more fitting than it is for those films, from the 1950s onward, from the U.S. to Japan. Here are some standouts, in no particular order.
MICKEY SPILLANE’S MIKE HAMMER (1954) – This was a failed pilot for what would have been the first Mike Hammer television series. Brian Keith starred as the title dick (as it were) while Blake Edwards wrote and directed, years before his Peter Gunn series.
In my opinion, trying to do Mike Hammer on television was as bad an idea as Spillane’s own novels which set the P.I. in any decade later than the 1950s. This 1954 effort is an exception to my tv rule because it was deemed TOO VIOLENT FOR TELEVISION and was never aired!
Now that’s more like it! The raw violence and lurid sex of Spillane’s novels were what made Mike Hammer stand out. Anything less than Quentin Tarantino levels of sex and violence has been what doomed most Hammer productions on the big screen, let alone the small.
Spillane didn’t exactly concoct ground-breaking mysteries, so the adult elements were what fueled sales of his novels. Stripped of those elements, any story is just a pale imitation of Mike Hammer. As much as I like Darren McGavin, his 1958-1960 Mike Hammer series is way too tame and plays like any other bland detective series of the era.
Brian Keith is great as the title character in this pilot and I’d love to see how he’d have done in a cinematic depiction of Spillane’s hero. Robert Bice is adequate in the thankless role of police captain Pat Chambers, but the absence of Hammer’s secretary Velda is a serious blow to the production.
Typical of so many Mike Hammer stories, there’s no client. The misanthrope is filled with personal rage and decides to take down a gangster when he sees the man’s gunsels kill a paper boy as collateral damage when they mow down a potential mob witness.
THE MOST TERRIBLE TIME IN MY LIFE (1993 in Japan, 1994 in the U.S.) – Masatoshi Nagase IS Maiku Hama, the Japanese rendering of the name Mike Hammer. This unusual film, directed and co-written by Kaizo Hayashi, is in black & white for all but the final 20 minutes.
The Most Terrible Time in My Life starts out so slavishly derivative of Mickey Spillane, Film Noir and Seijun Suzuki that a viewer finds themselves wondering if this is supposed to be a comedy, but it’s not. Hama comes to the aid of a Taiwanese waiter living in Yokohama, Japan. The waiter wants Maiku to find his missing brother, which investigation leads Hama to over the top violence, the Yakuza, gangster warfare and a secret vendetta between the Taiwanese brothers.
Our title detective gets a finger cut off and reattached at one point in the midst of the routine severe beatings that Mike Hammer usually suffers. Some of the beatings come from his old, revered detective sensei, Jo Shishido, the “cheeky” Japanese star of gritty crime cinema. (He’s sort of the Eddie Constantine of Japan, so his appearance as Hama’s mentor is an iconic moment.) Continue reading